Confab learning that where stars go, drama follows

Lady Gaga and Polaroid made a paparazzi-worthy splash by announcing a creative partnership during last year’s Consumer Electronics Show. And while their first product, a co-branded printer, later landed on a number of best-of lists, with CNet declaring it “made mobile printers sexy again,” two more gadgets also announced at the confab have yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, at the same Las Vegas confab, fans mobbed a booth where rap artist 50 Cent touted his entry into the crowded headphone category with a product called Sleek by 50.

Within months, though, that deal soured and Sleek by 50 never arrived at a Best Buy near you.

CES has long tried to make its tech cool and, as a result, has increasingly found itself in the celebrity game.

Just look at press conferences for Sony and Yahoo, in the past, that brought out Tom Cruise and Seth Rogen, while this year, Sony and Yahoo featured Will Smith and Tom Hanks.

But CES is learning what Hollywood knows all too well: where stars go, drama follows.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A celebrity contingent, after all, brings with it increased visibility and media attention, which can be a boon to technology companies that work with actors, musicians and filmmakers.

But the jury’s still out on just how effective some of these alliances are, even though it’s no surprise that they keep happening given that they’re a sure-fire way to generate heat, at least initially. (Nikon and Ashton Kutcher are still going strong, and BlackBerry has boosted its brand with such famous pitchmen as Adrian Grenier and Common).

“CES has become the Super Bowl of tech marketing,” said David Schwab, managing director of Octagon First Call, which helps brands assess celebrity value for ad campaigns. “Like brands use athletes to launch products at the Super Bowl, tech companies are doing the exact same thing with stars at CES.”

If there’s a gold standard from recent years, it may be Beats by Dr. Dre, a partnership that premiered in 2008 pairing up the hip-hop mogul, with record executive Jimmy Iovine and audio gear company Monster Cable Products.

Though exact figures aren’t available, estimates pegged the product’s retail sales at $50 million for fourth quarter 2009, after Best Buy set up in-store Club Beats destinations.

Not only has the Beats line grown significantly over the years, the product has reached into other industries with innovative crossover deals. The headphones are incorporated into a $2,300 Hewlett-Packard laptop and into Chrysler’s redesigned 300 sedan, for example.

“Beats has become synonymous with a certain level of quality,” said Jonathan Geller, editor of the influential tech blog, Boy Genius Report. “And they’re a fashion statement for the young audience they’re marketed to.”

Dr. Dre, who wore the headphones in a popular Dr. Pepper commercial, in which he starred, could be within reach of Iovine’s prediction that he’d be to headphones what Michael Jordan has been to sneakers.

The hip-hop artist surely benefitted by being first in the category, which has since become crowded with other famous faces.

Jay-Z, with his RocNation Aviators from Skullcandy, and Soul by Ludacris from Signeo now battle it out with Beats’ own JustBeats (associated with teen heartthrob Justin Bieber) and DiddyBeats (rapper P. Diddy). The latter, according to published reports, may be earning about $1 million annually for the artist-businessman.

Bieber will be at CES to promote TOSY Robotics’ new robot.

As for the closely watched Lady Gaga-Polaroid deal from last year’s CES? There’s still an instant digital camera on the horizon, which has been delayed but is reportedly coming out sometime this year. (An alternative version went on sale in November). The future is less certain for a pair of futuristic camera-glasses that were all the rage among those gathered last January. Launch date: still undetermined.

To make a winner, the tech product has to be excellent, industry watchers said, high profile spokesman or not. And the association between star and gadget has to make sense to consumers. In that way, technology is no different than sports drinks or clothing brands.

Also key to success may be the celebrity’s hands-on involvement in the product, if the tech company is shilling it as “made by” or “designed by” the star.

That’s why 50 Cent (born Curtis Jackson) scrapped his prior headphones deal and decided to make his own product via SMS Audio, a company in which he now owns a majority stake and serves as CEO– similar to his connection to VitaminWater.

“Consumers know when somebody’s stuck a name on a product or when they’re really invested in it,” said Brian Nohe, president of SMS Audio, which recently released the wireless headphones, Sync by 50, and wired version, Street by 50. “50 is invested personally and financially.”

Because the headphones category has been growing as much as 20% percent annually for the last several years, Nohe said he isn’t worried about oversaturation. He also said he thinks 50 Cent’s global appeal — not to mention his 3.8 million Twitter followers — will separate the new product from the rest of the pack.

“Dre was able to present a clear rationale for consumers to buy stylish, better quality headphones — he blazed the trail,” Nohe said. “We believe our product will work, too, because 50 is unique in the marketplace.”

In keeping with Jackson’s charitable efforts, like his Street King energy drink contributes to the U.N. World Food Program, there’s a tie between SMS and Feeding America, with the company donating portions of proceeds from headphone sales to the domestic food bank.50′s line, which will introduce ear buds and DJ-ready swivel headphones at this year’s CES, plans to expand into laptops, speakers and home entertainment, Nohe said.

The rapper will be signing autographs Thursday at the SMS Audio booth (LVCC, South Hall, #20818) and discuss his wireless headphones with editors of TechCrunch at the AOL Studio and CNET today.”This is intended to be an audio company, broadly defined,” Nohe said. “Headphones, because of 50′s expertise in music, are the natural place to step into it. But that’s just the start.”

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